There is a special, overflowing corner of hell reserved for the policies and practices of just-departed American presidents, and the Obama administration has rushed to toss democracy promotion in Afghanistan onto that sulfurous heap of political oblivion. But Afghan President Hamid Karzai is making it perfectly clear that he does not intend to go along for the ride, quietly or otherwise.
In interviews, statements to Congress and speeches, President Obama and his chief foreign policy aides have distanced themselves from Karzai so effectively that he might as well be on the moon. They do not mince words in accusing him of letting Afghanistan become a "narco-state" rampant with corruption while allowing the Taliban to retake growing swaths of the countryside.
Three things need to be said:
(1) The analysis by Obama & Co. is accurate and is shared by U.S. allies, particularly Britain, which has effectively given up on Karzai. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer recently published an op-ed in The Post blasting Karzai after checking its tone and content with the Obama White House.
(2) The administration is tactically shrewd to dial down public expectations for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It has instead shifted the focus to halting the country's slide into ever-greater violence and instability -- the modest goal that Gen. David Petraeus has now enunciated for himself as Central Command boss.
(3) But the Obama team has yet to develop a persuasive, overarching strategy for handling one of the most vexing problems great nations confront when they take on distant wars in fractious, outside-of-history locales: What to do with once-useful indigenous allies who gradually become more of a problem than a solution as war aims shift and public support ebbs in the bigger power?
Obama now runs the classic risk of trying to beat something with nothing -- of completely undercutting Karzai, democratically elected in 2004, before a credible alternative can be developed and put in place.
The brazen attacks on central Kabul last week did not enhance Karzai's standing in Washington. They formed a grim welcome for special envoy Richard Holbrooke -- and were perhaps conceived as a mini-Tet Offensive, Taliban-style, to dent U.S. and European morale.
Holbrooke would not have missed the echo from 1968 Vietnam. He earned his young diplomat's stripes in Saigon in the U.S. pacification program of the early 1960s. Nor will he have forgotten the disasters that engulfed U.S. policy there as Washington maneuvered its Vietnamese favorites in and out of office in a search for a "Third Force" that either did not exist or could not be sustained.
At an international conference in Germany last weekend attended by Holbrooke, Vice President Biden and national security adviser James L. Jones, Karzai rope-a-doped American officials and did not argue about their statements. But in other conversations in Munich, the Afghan repeatedly criticized the United States and its allies for inflicting "numerous, needless" civilian casualties and thus being responsible for the resurgence of the Taliban. He served notice that he is prepared to run a "Yankee Go Home" campaign for reelection this year, even if he has to pull the house down around himself.
The administration does not seem to have thought through the double-edged political effect of its promise to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. That rapid influx can only have the effect of "Americanizing" both the war and the Afghan casualty figures even more, at least in the short run.
As initially conceived, this surge seems to have everything to do with Obama's campaign pledges to win the right war in the right place and to make the United States safe from al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden -- and relatively little to do with Afghanistan's own political struggle.
That outcome is one consequence of changing goals so abruptly -- of moving from George W. Bush's ideological campaign of democracy promotion in Afghanistan and Iraq to Team Obama's coolly pragmatic effort to force Karzai to change or quit. It is an approach that can be applied anywhere, at any time.
Yes, desperate times require desperate moves, and Obama's surge may yet bear fruit. Let us hope so. But the new president would do well to reflect on the miscalculations of Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Bush 43 in Iraq in seeking to manipulate the politics of a client state. Both experiences point to perils that Obama may be unleashing for himself.